Harassment in the Headlines… Your Questions Answered

ELI recently hosted a nationwide webcast to address the onslaught of harassment claims in the headlines. The interactive discussion allowed HR and training professionals to tackle essential questions about behavior, training, and corporate culture. Here’s a recap of the questions that were addressed along with the key insights provided by Steve Paskoff and Tucker Miller on this critical topic.

How do you eliminate sexual harassment when you have policies, training rules, hotlines and, still, things are happening?

Fear is a big reason these behaviors continue, and it requires more than one person to take a stand. Problems arise when egregious behavior appears to be tolerated and accepted by those in leadership positions. When bad behavior is seemingly allowed and perpetuated, it’s difficult for anyone to raise a concern. Speaking up is almost agreeing to take on the entire culture. It’s the normalizing, beyond the fear, that becomes a further complication.
In organizations, top leaders need to boldly and directly communicate that, legal or illegal, certain behaviors are intolerable. Leadership also needs to vocalize their need and desire to know about it. Unfortunately, too many messages are couched in legal terms and HR language. It must come from leadership in plain, clear words with the understanding that it’s non-negotiable.

Why does harassment take place in so many of our workplaces and what can we do to prevent it?

Preventing harassment in the workplace is a complex problem with a fairly straightforward solution. It requires a true and sustained commitment to culture change. Harassment and discrimination are highly behavioral, and both the behaviors and the way you address them, must adapt and change. You can’t continue to rely on the methods you’ve used in the past. The behaviors are familiar, but corporate culture and the way we communicate need to evolve.

If threats of legal liability don’t move organizations to act, what will?

If an organization has values, it’s their organizational responsibility to enforce the behaviors that reflect them. It’s more about responsibility than the liability.
Harassment is also a power issue. There’s a lot of encouragement around bystanders speaking up and intervening. But, beyond people who identify with the targeted individuals, consider how to engage part of the power structure to respond to the issues. Harassment requires a cultural solution to solve the problem. Enlist and engage everyone in thinking about how the organization as a whole wants to be recognized, what kind of culture they want to have, and the people they want to hold those positions of power.

What about harassment training – does it really work?

Your training may not have been effective because you have never truly addressed the conceptual resistance, and then given employees specific rules to follow. You can’t proscribe every behavior, but you should focus on core behaviors and continually reinforce them over time. Training is only effective if it reflects and supports the organization’s core, sincere, and deeply held commitments.
The goal of training is to engage and equip people with resources and set a clear communication standard. Expecting to eradicate all the issues is an artificial hope, but when it helps to promptly identify and address issues, training is successful.

What is the role of bystanders in helping to address sexual harassment when it occurs?

Intervention by bystanders is critical to identifying and resolving harassment. The sooner it’s done, the lower the risk, the lower the harm, and the greater the benefit to the organization.
It’s not just those that are targeted coming together; it’s everyone. People who align with the power structure should support and identify the risks to the company. As a friend, peer, or colleague, employees should step-up in an alliance. Many times, people may be behaving in a way that they may not be aware of or intend. Calling attention to their behavior can resolve an issue and cause them to evaluate their behavior more closely.
Employees are hesitant, though. Many have different standards of appropriate versus inappropriate thresholds. It’s critical for the organization to continually give clear, intentional signals as to what’s acceptable behavior.

How do you deal with conceptual resistance that may arise in discussions related to what’s happening in the outside world right now?

The idea of conceptual resistance is the essence of why bad behavior continues. Many say, “Tell us exactly what we can’t talk about.” It’s a narrow slice of a big pie, and that’s where they need to direct their focus. They may say, “Others get away with it…” Others may, but what rules do you violate because others do? A criminal offense is an excellent example that reinforces that thought.
Lastly, you may hear, “You’re asking me to change my behavior.” Yes, we’ve changed our behavior in so many other ways, (e.g., technology, processes, procedures) so why wouldn’t we change behavior when we know the harm it can cause and the fact that it produces no benefits to the organization?
Productive conversations about these questions are critical. To get to a level of understanding and growth, we need an impact that is respectful, open, and curious. If working together more effectively is the goal, we need to find ways to get to know each other better, including our backgrounds and thresholds.

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